Insights and Analysis

Time to Rethink State-Building in Afghanistan?

May 2, 2012

By William Stadden Cole

President Obama’s overnight visit to Afghanistan underscores the long-term security and financial commitment of the United States to this country in advance of the NATO Summit later this month. That’s good news. But the long-term challenge of building a durable and effective system of governance that actually works within the limits of the social, political, economic, and security realities that face a post-transition Afghanistan, remains as challenging as ever. Right now the defining concept in Washington and other capitals, as we edge closer to the 2014 transition, is “sustainability,” sustaining what we have built, when the real need may be more like “evolution” to a more Afghan-like state. A course correction in the way we are thinking about state-building and institutional development, based on a more realistic Afghan-led assessment of what will actually be possible to sustain post-transition, is very much needed.

Afghans cross a street with the aid of police.

Massive investment in state-building has achieved much in Afghanistan – large numbers of Afghan children are now educated, health care has improved, and the conditions for most women are decidedly better than under the Taliban a decade ago. Yet despite the dedicated efforts of many, Afghanistan is still a highly fragile state. Photo: Paula Bronstein

There can be no doubt that a decade of massive investment in state-building has achieved much – large numbers of Afghan children are now educated, health care has improved, and the conditions for most women are decidedly better than under the Taliban a decade ago. Elections are held, even if imperfect, and the judiciary and courts exist, even if the administration of justice and the rule of law often fall short. Basic governing institutions are in place. Yet despite the dedicated efforts of many, Afghanistan is still a highly fragile state. In many areas, state institutions in which so much has been invested do not serve many or most Afghans, especially outside of Kabul and few other urban centers. The Asia Foundation’s 2011 annual Survey of the Afghan People found that one third to one half of Afghan citizens still have little confidence in public administration, government ministers, the courts, and municipal and provincial government. Ironically, the military and the police score much higher. Between 2006 and 2011, the numbers of Afghans who feel the country is moving in the wrong direction did not decline, and they may, in fact, be growing. Corruption, nepotism, and impunity are rampantly increasing, competence and commitment of the bureaucracy is mixed and generally low, and the government is still too heavily dependent on foreign advisors and foreign cash. In a country struggling with a volatile combination of insurgency, growing citizen frustration, and increasing unhappiness over foreign dependency, future stability may require serious adjustment to current thinking about how what kind of state Afghans want and need.

In part, the problem is that the construction of Afghanistan’s state institutions has been based on a development model, now widely and implicitly accepted within the development community, that may be flawed. Conventional state-building through donor assistance depends heavily on the technical expertise of foreign experts who seek to transfer and replicate in the Afghan context what has come to be understood as international “best practice,” hence by definition, taken from elsewhere. Elsewhere means the West, originally for the most part the Anglo Saxon West. There is no question that the international donor community has acted with the best of intentions in Afghanistan, and in fairness the models being applied have worked in many other countries over the decades. But dialogue on aid effectiveness, or to be less euphemistic, “aid ineffectiveness,” underway for half a decade or more within the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and beyond should give us pause. Conventional state-building and development programs start with the assumption that there is a technically correct way to solve most governance problems – if certain structures function well elsewhere, then surely replicating those structures in developing countries, with some adjustment for local realities, will yield the same useful functions. Build the institutions and fill them with well-trained government officials, and government will work more or less the way it works elsewhere. This fundamentally apolitical approach to construction of government flies in the face of the way state institutions evolved in cases that have actually proven highly successful, like Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore after WWII and Japan after the Meiji Restoration. In those cases, the building of formal institutions proceeded brick-by-brick through complex locally-led and locally-driven processes of domestic negotiations in which technical solutions were always  consciously moderated by political considerations, and then revisited and reformed again as needed down the road. These are cases where at any one point, the results may not have been what today would be seen as best practice, but they were effective and affordable, and were supported by powerful actors who could otherwise have simply ignored formal institutions with impunity and played by other rules.

What we are increasingly coming to learn is that conventional development efforts that have worked to a degree elsewhere may not transfer well at all to highly volatile regions like Afghanistan. In these cases, state-building occurs from the ground up, often in the midst of violent insurgency, where powerful interests and informal relationships simply trump nominal legality. The result may be the appearance on the surface of proper formal state institutions but where the underlying reality is that governance is mostly being done through informal arrangements between powerful actors inside and outside government, and officials are simply not constrained by formal rules so carefully delineated by outside experts. In this context, the real challenge is not so much to “sustain” what has been built thus far, as it is to “evolve” what exists today into a more effective, and more Afghan state, one that works within the social, political, economic, and security realities that the Afghans face.

The complex transition over the next few years – the withdrawal of foreign forces, the coming presidential election, the substantial drop in foreign assistance, the rising influence of narcotics trade, and the potential exit of some of the country’s most skilled human resources – will exacerbate all current dysfunctions in government.

The long-term security commitment that the United States has now made to Afghanistan may create breathing space for the country to continue to develop, but to survive and thrive a rethinking of many of the main institutions of governance is essential. There is a pressing need to begin now with a process of evolving and adapting, in some cases downsizing, key state institutions to make the Afghan government more effective, sustainable, and affordable in post-transition Afghanistan. It is essential this process be entirely Afghan-led since the reform process will be primarily a political, and only secondarily a technical, challenge.

William S. Cole is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Governance, Law, and Civil Society Programs. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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